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The Pros and Cons of Paper vs. Digital Textbooks

  • March 28, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solutions Architect

A Difficult Read: Balancing the Tradeoffs Between Textbooks and eBooks

This is part two of a two-part series.

The promise of digital textbooks or eBooks is enormous—rich, immersive experiences, social sharing and collaboration, individualized learning, real-time analytics, and performance assessment—just to name a few. Despite these exciting attributes, though, adoption both in higher education and K-12 has been slow. Paper textbooks, even with their many downsides, continue to dominate the market and the classroom. What are the tradeoffs?

Digital Textbooks: The Tale of the Tape


· Rich content. As opposed to traditional textbooks, which lay flat on paper forever once they are printed, digital textbooks feature dynamic content. The possibilities are more or less endless. Content can be interactive and regularly updated, plus eBooks can encourage real-time exploration through connected web channels and resources.

· Teacher influence. Most teachers have little say in what makes up textbooks that come off the shelf, but eBooks are a different story. One advantageous aspect of textbooks is teachers’ ability to curate and customize what content is included. Plus, there is potential for teacher interaction woven into the digital content experience.

· Additional tools. Digital textbooks are able to incorporate other sources of learning, such as social and collaborative tools, which can improve student engagement.

· Flexibility. Since they are not tied to ink and paper, digital textbooks can shapeshift to meet user needs. In many cases, there are options for different text sizes, audio versions, and multi-language versions.

· Improved Insight. eBooks can be used to collect data, large and small that can otherwise be hard to gather. Analytics and assessments have the power to transform not just learning efficacy, but teaching resource allocation and strategies as well.

· Individualized learning. Through artificial intelligence and adaptation, digital textbooks can offer more personalized, specifically-oriented learning experiences. In an article for The Atlantic, Terrance F. Ross describes one option on the market, McGraw Hill’s math software:

“ALEKS, which stands for Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces…is a web-based tool that assesses students in mathematics, accounting, statistics, and chemistry.”

Essentially, it’s software predicated on “completely individualized learning.” The program adapts based on an individual’s knowledge and skillsets by building a database detailing the proficiency of each student. That information is then used to formulate questions tailored to kids based on what they find most challenging.

· Future-friendly. Technology is only going to become more integrated with daily life, especially for today’s students. While digitized textbooks might not yet be flying off the shelves, digital is the way of tomorrow.


· Unfulfilled potential. Only a small percentage of what’s available is living up to the experiential learning promise of digital. Much of the market is leaning toward glorified PDFs versus comprehensive eBooks, making a lot of the eBooks’ promise irrelevant.

· Accessibility. Even if digital textbooks were the end-all, be-all solution, Internet access is not a guarantee. Unlike traditional textbooks, eBooks don’t promote a level playing field for students (those with high-speed, reliable access will have an advantage).

· Tech implementation and adoption. Regardless of how wonderful technology is, being on the early end of adoption is hard work—change is uncomfortable. For example, Rose Moore, the preK-12 mathematics coordinator at Fairfax County Public Schools, which has been dealing with digital textbooks for five years, spoke to THE Journal about some of the challenges they’ve faced (and what they’ve learned):

“We are telling digital publishers we are not going to look at your product if you don’t have a way to automatically register students from our student information system. We are not going to deal with you if you don’t have support phone numbers for students and parents after 5 p.m. And they have to be more platform-agnostic, so students can access it from whatever device they want to use.”

· Health concerns. Too much of a good thing can be detrimental, and technology is no exception. Looking at a screen more than necessary can bring health issues front and center. As written in The Atlantic:

“This shift also means that kids are spending more time than ever looking at screens, which could be physically and cognitively detrimental in the long run. The American Academy of Pediatrics, at least for now, recommends that kids spend no longer than two hours a day looking at digital devices.”

· Bandwidth. In addition to access, schools need to determine if technology has enough bandwidth to meet more expansive needs.

· Lack of standards. Achieving interoperability standards for digital content is still a struggle, despite the IMS Global, a consortium trying to establish a baseline.

· Cost. Non-digital textbooks are certainly accompanied by sticker shock, but digital textbooks don’t necessarily leave schools’ pockets full, either. The “all-in” cost of digital education materials—from the text to the device to the associated network considerations—might be higher depending on each situation.

· Limited ability to annotate. Digital textbooks disallow annotation in a user-defined method. For example, if students are accustomed to writing in the margins, highlighting, or underlining as they go, they will need to adjust.


While most would agree that digital textbooks hold remarkable promise for K-12 and colleges alike, the short-term conversion pains, married with the long-term questions and concerns cited above, mean we’ll likely be reading about this topic for well into the foreseeable future. In the meantime, whether you prefer to read on paper or in pixels, is up to you.


1. “Four Common Objections to Digital Textbooks” Ed Surge. December 5 2015.
2. “Amplifying the Digital Textbook” Ed Surge. March 3 2014.
3. “The Promise (and Perils) of Digital Textbooks” The Journal. October 28 2015.
4. “College Textbook Prices Have Risen 1,041 Percent Since 1977” NBC News. August 6 2015.
5. “The Death of Textbooks?” The Atlantic. March 6 2015.
6. “The Future of Textbooks” Think with Google. December 2012.
7. “5 Reasons Why eBooks Are Not The Future of Education” Junction. February 13 2015.
8. “Will the Classroom of the Future Be eBook Driven?” Insight. February 10 2015.
9. “Sorry, Ebooks. These 9 Studies Show Why Print Is Better” HuffPost Books. February 27 2015.
10. “The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Teens and Tweens” Common Sense Media. November 3 2015.
11. “Global eBook” Rüdiger Wischenbart Content & Consulting. 2014.